Ethan Couch, the notorious teenager whose "affluenza" defense earned him a sentence of 10 years probation despite being responsible for the deaths of four people, was apprehended by Mexican authorities in Puerto Vallarta alongside his mother. Couch had fled the United States shortly after a video surfaced of the 18-year-old allegedly violating the terms of his probation by participating in a drinking game.
The consequences of Couch's probation violation - not for the drinking game, which is under investigation, but for failing to meet with his probation officer - have yet to be decided. He was sentenced as a juvenile, so the most severe punishment he could face for now is 120 days in an adult prison, explained Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson in a press conference. Couch's mother, Tonya Couch, has been charged with hindering the apprehension of a juvenile, a crime that comes with a sentence of two to 10 years in jail if convicted.
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The inconclusiveness of Couch's most recent legal entangling didn't stop a wave of schadenfreude from overtaking social media following the news of his apprehension. No doubt Couch's arrest restores a sense of justice, but why do some people with no connection to the case feel a sense of joy out of the teen's self-inflicted wounds?
It's perfectly natural to feel some tinge of enjoyment out of another's misfortune, and in fact children as young as 2 years old exhibit schadenfreude at seeing some mishap befall a rival, according to a study published last year in the journal PLoS One. For the study, researchers simulated an unequal situation: The mother of one toddler would give her attention to another, reading a story to the peer while ignoring her own child.
Naturally, the arrangement provoked feelings of envy, which lasted until the experimenters rebalanced the situation. They cued the mother to accidentally spill a glass of water on the book she was reading, which often prompted delight in the slighted child. "Social comparison and sensitivity to fairness develop early in life," the authors conclude, "further highlighting the evolutionary significance of positive reactions to the termination of an unfair situation."
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In 2009, a pair of studies in the journal Science identified the neurological pathways for envy and schadenfreude. Envy stimulates the dorsal anterior cingulated cortex, the same part of the brain associated with physical pain. Schadenfreude, on the other hand, was tied to the ventral striatum, responsible for processing rewards.
The toddler experiment shows how schadenfreude turns up in a situation where an individual feels personally wronged. In the case of Couch, the reaction can be explained by inter-group dynamics. Couch's infamy stems from his status an "affluent" teenager, which arguably saved him in his trial but condemned him in the public eye. The unexpectedly light sentence he received for multiple counts of manslaughter created an "us" vs. "them" mentality among those who felt a similar outcome would not have occurred for someone without the resources of the teen's parents.
Competitiveness and envy play a role, but so does the shared sense of injustice. With Couch's apprehension, those who view Couch as a rival reprentative of a particular group see the latest turn of events as a win for their side.
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Taking happiness in another's misery might be perfectly natural on an individual level, but as a 2010 Scientific American article notes, schadenfreude as it plays out between rival groups can set the stage for prejudice and violence. "(T)he emotion becomes acceptable as a way to bond or express group loyalty," the author explains. "Once in the open, the feeling can grow." In fact, it can reach the point where individuals identify so strongly with their group that they may experience schadenfreude for events that are bad for society as a whole, even themselves, so long as it injured the competition.
Experiencing joy at another's misery may be perfectly natural, but schadenfreude can also be seductive, creating a potentially dangerous sense of rivalry, even when one doesn't really exist.